Tuesday, July 8, 2008

On the Restlessness of Gena Rowlands

The stage in Opening Night is not a comfortable place, a place that allows one to stay in touch. "[Q]uite the contrary," writes Jousse, "it is a fluid space, subject to variations of mood, the feeling of the moment, the unpredictability of the present moment, when a moment of madness could at any time cause the scene to shift and jeopardize the performance and the very idea of performance itself." In Opening Night the stage does funny things to actions and bodies. Every time Myrtle leaves the stage, even if only for a few seconds, we are never sure to what point in the play she will return when she passes or, as it sometimes seems, is propelled back through the door. The stage is a place where time flows in all directions, and actions, gestures, and sounds eat away at its very stability."

-Where Does It Happen/John Cassavetes and Cinema at the Breaking Point by George Kouvaros

Opening Night feels in some ways like the quintessential Gena Rowlands movie. It isn't just that she's playing an actress and happens to be one, although that creates interesting inter-textual layers within the narrative. It isn't just that Myrtle, this actress, has witnessed something tragic and loses her possibly already tenuous grip on things, a pespective Rowlands has specialized in. The role is suited to Rowlands more than anything because it caters to the impression she's always given of being impatient with straight lines of action and rigidly conceived roles, with staying in character. The fluidity of the stage in Opening Night, the scripted and unscripted collisions between Myrtle's life and the fiction she's portraying, the ambiguous, open-ended exchange between fantasy and reality, sobriety and derangement, all lend themselves well to the kinds of mercurial, sometimes volte face decisions Rowlands has made as an actress. In Cassavetes' movies she's a restless force, constantly moving. Every Cassavetes movie presents her with a series of stages and a selection of doors, and she's constantly bursting through them, storming forward, swinging around, retreating, hesitating, resenting the hesitation gradually or suddenly, then storming off again.

In Woman Under the Influence, this restlessness is presented as neurosis, even psychosis. The doors don't seem to exist or are flush with the walls, Mabel can't see them or has no access to them, or she can't open them. She's reduced to pacing wildly in her mind, swinging her arms in the air. She storms around standing still, her eyes bursting through doors of memory as if looking for the right one. It's Rowlands' most masochistic role under Cassavetes, because her character is given no way out, and no one else has the trouble moving around she does. To them it's a house; to her, a labyrinth. Her housewife is marooned in the suburbs with Peter Falk, her alleged husband. Like Myrtle, she's ended up on a stage she thought was her life but now seems to be a role. She looks to the other actors for some indication how well she's performing. They all seem to be improvising so she does the same, but they're ultimately in very different productions (reality, fantasy) and once she's been thrust through the door out onto this stage she turns around to leave and it's gone.

Rowlands' characters make a lot of mistakes. They have hardened philosophical outlooks about the choices they've made. Some of those choices were forced upon them; some they ran headlong into, without thinking. It's a consequence of all that restless movement. You fling a few doors open and rush right through without looking. You can walk into a real mess. She walks into a big one as Gloria. Gloria was once involved in some shady stuff (time in prison, ties to the mob) and she put it all behind her. She figured out where the messes were and chalked it up to youth; she closed the doors on that part of her life. Who needs the hassle.

Then the kid comes along. His parents are killed (his dad made poor choices of his own) and he's her neighbor; their apartments are practically connected. She hears the gunshots through the wall, the sound of memories in an adjoining room. She feels responsible. She's made to feel responsible and she takes the kid under her care. Gloria presents a character opening all those doors all over again, trying to remember where they led to, trying to use them with some sort of strategy toward very different ends than the ones they served back when she first stumbled through them. The problem is she can't remember where those doors were and opening them is as full of surprises as ever. Gloria is Rowlands' most combustive performance. Every time she bursts through a door there's some goon there with a gun and a leering expression. They just want the kid, they keep saying. They all know her. She was a fixture, then she disappeared. Now she shows up again, on the wrong side of things. You can tell she isn't the woman she was back when they knew her. You can tell she's trying to remember how that woman worked, the role she played and the way she got the men around her to function in certain ways. Unlike Mabel in Woman Under the Influence, Gloria's patience for all the improvisation runs thin. Ultimately, she says to hell with it, and the gun comes out. Then they're all speaking the same language.

Why don't you play the woman, she seems to be saying, and I'll play the gun. Throughout the movie she has a wizened "Geez, guys, you again?" slant to her face, a visual sight gag which gives the movie much of its comic edge. Isn't this awkward, she shrugs: you, me, here we are, here we go again, let's pretend I still don't know what it is you all do and the part I play in it. Myrtle stumbles through doors half drunk. One place becomes another, past and present superimpose. She's resigned to that. Gloria wings it, staying on top of things. Whatever they throw at her she uses. The men around Mabel are bewildered by her unexpected moves,but there's no intentionality behind her behavior, she's not in control of herself. It leaves her powerless and somewhat acquiescent. Gloria behaves unexpectedly too, and uses the bewilderment this creates to her own own advantage, whether she knows off hand what exactly to do with it or not. She'll shoot her way through. Let the bullet set the course.

Rowlands was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the movie. On working almost exclusively with Cassavetes, she remarked, "I'd be happy to work for other directors if they made films with good parts for women. I like a hard part, a part in which I can work something out, find out things about myself."

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